AZRAQ, Jordan — Republican presidential contender Ben Carson visited two camps for Syrian refugees in the Jordanian desert Saturday, in a quick “fact-finding” trip with no media coverage.
Carson’s convoy rolled into the Azraq refugee camp along a highway with heightened security, with each car being stopped and searched at a police checkpoint. After the visit, the convoy headed to the Zaatari refugee camp. Members of the media were not allowed to accompany him on either visit.
Carson’s campaign issued a statement and several pictures of his visit on Saturday, describing a trip that the candidate began planning “just over two months ago” to “see with my own eyes this great human tragedy.”
In the photos, Carson is seen meeting with refugees, medical personnel and relief workers. In one shot, he is seen sitting on the edge of a bed, stroking the head of a sleeping baby.
“Today I listened to the life struggles of many Syrians who were forced to flee their own homes,” Carson said in the statement. “I met with medical professionals, humanitarian workers, and government officials. I saw pain on the faces of mothers and children.
“They came to Jordan for safety,” he continued. “Jordan is doing an amazing job opening its doors and extending a hand in relief. The rest of the world could be doing so much more.”
Carson urged the United States to do more to help settle refugees in Jordan — and not to bring them to the United States.
“Bringing 25,000 refugees to the United States does nothing to solve this crisis,” he said. It was unclear what that figure referred to, as President Obama has said 10,000 Syrians would be allowed into the United States in the next year, four times more than the total number admitted since 2011.
“Jordan already houses 1.4 million refugees,” Carson said. “Jordan needs and deserves our help.”
Carson said he will offer “real solutions” to the refugee crisis in the coming days — a crisis, he said, “created in part by the Obama [and Hillary] Clinton Administration’s failed policies.” He is scheduled to appear on three Sunday morning talk shows live from Jordan.
Carson “and a small group” traveled to Jordan for “fact-finding, listening, learning and meeting,” a campaign official wrote in an e-mail Friday. The official, who was not authorized to comment publicly, said no public or media events are planned.
Carson was not invited by the Jordanian government, and no official meetings were scheduled — although Carson’s statement said he met with “Jordanian Government Officials.” The government and the U.S. Embassy in Amman were informed of the trip this week, said several individuals familiar with the visit who were not authorized to speak with the media.
The trip comes as Carson has faced harsh criticism about his lack of foreign policy expertise, as well as his strong stance against admitting Muslim refugees, some of whom he described as “mad dogs,” into the United States.
It also comes just a few days after Carson brought on a new adviser on faith matters, Johnnie Moore, who is known for his activism on behalf of Christians in the Middle East.
Moore, a former youth pastor at Liberty University, was most recently chief of staff to reality TV creator Mark Burnett and his wife, actress Roma Downey. The couple are rare in Hollywood for their outspoken, evangelical faith. Moore worked with them as they sought to help Middle East Christians, first focusing on trying to get evangelicals to support a solution in Iraq and Syria, then shifting to resettling people out of the region.
Messages for Moore were not immediately returned. He said this month in a Washington Post article about the religious politics surrounding refugees that Christians should be a higher priority for Americans than Muslims because there are no nearby countries in the Middle East with large Christian populations where they can easily resettle.
Carson did not distinguish between Christian and Muslim refugees in his statement Saturday, which made no mention of religion. In the photographs his campaign released, Carson is seen meeting with several women wearing traditional hijab headscarves worn by Muslim women. Carson’s wife, Candy Carson, is also seen in the pictures wearing a headscarf.
According to figures compiled by the Jordanian government, more than 1.3 million Syrians — 20 percent of the country’s population — have taken refuge in Jordan. Roughly 600,000 are registered by the United Nations. But only one-tenth live in refugee camps, according to official figures, with the rest finding shelter in increasingly overcrowded cities and villages.
The influx of Syrians has led to a housing crunch and inflated rents in most major cities, while the abundance of Syrian laborers willing to work for as little as $10 per day has driven unemployment to about 40 percent in towns along the Jordanian-Syrian border such as Mafraq and Ramtha.
In addition, more than 130,000 Syrians have flooded Jordanian public schools, forcing many schools to cut classes in half to provide education to Jordanians and Syrians in “shifts.”
Jordan’s King Abdullah has said his country is preparing for the Syrian refugee community to stay for 17 years — a projection based on U.N. averages of how long refugees stay in host countries.
Abdullah has called for increased aid to the resource-poor kingdom. As of late November, Jordan had received 35 percent of its $2.99 billion appeal to host and provide services to refugees in 2015, according to the government and palace officials. The country is launching an appeal to the international community for $8.13 billion to continue hosting Syrians for the next three years.
The United States remains one of the largest donors to Syrian host countries, providing $1.6 billion in assistance to the United Nations and host governments in Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq in the 2015 fiscal year. The United States has provided Jordan with $668 million in humanitarian assistance since 2012.
Luck is a freelance writer based in Amman, Jordan.